Serving a holiday ham may seem like an easy choice. That is, until you get to the grocer.
That's when you discover the often overwhelming variety of hams, leaving you to guess at the best choice.But understanding a few ham basics can make your selection much easier.
A true ham is the leg of pork that comes from the hind of the hog. This is the best choice for slicing and serving. To confuse matters, the front leg, called the pork shoulder picnic, often is cured and called ham, as well. These hams tend to have more internal fat, making them better suited for dishes such as soups and stews.
Most true hams are cured in salt or salt water and sometimes sugar. After curing, American hams are smoked, then partially or fully cooked.
A few small U.S. producers still make traditional country hams, which are salt-cured, then cold-smoked over smoldering fires. This type of ham must be thoroughly cooked and is extremely salty.
Most of the hams carried by mainstream grocers are fully cooked.
Here's what you need to know:
When selecting a ham, figure on buying 1/4 to 1/3 pound per person if boneless, 1/3 to 1/2 pound per person if partially boned, and 3/4 to 1 pound per person for bone-in hams.
You can store a ham, unopened, in the original packaging for 7 to 10 days. For longer storage, you can freeze a ham, in the original packaging, for up to 3 months.
Fully cooked or ready-to-eat hams can be eaten with no further preparation. They are available with or without the bone, or partially boned.
While the bone adds flavor during cooking, it can make carving more difficult. Regardless of the bone, fully cooked hams can be purchased in a variety of sizes.
Meat expert Bruce Aidells, author of "Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Pork," says that a whole, 10- to 20-pound bone-in ham is the most flavorful and least wasteful cut. It can serve 15 to 20 people with leftovers, and the bone can be used as you would a ham hock, for seasoning soups and bean dishes.
For smaller groups, Aidells recommends buying a smaller section of the ham. The butt-end, which is the upper part of the leg, tends to have more meat than the smaller shank end, which is lower on the leg.
Partially cooked or ready-to-cook hams are made using traditional smoking and curing techniques and have been heated to at least 137 degrees during some part of the processing.
Aidells says that because these hams are minimally processed they usually have superior flavor and texture.
Fresh hams haven't been cured or cooked. They must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. These are sometimes found alongside other pork roasts, but you may need to special order them.
Spiral-cut hams, which usually are fully cooked and available with or without the bone, have become increasingly popular, in part for their ease of serving. But that may be where the advantages end.
Aidells says these hams tend to dry out. They also often are coated with a sweet commercial glaze made with processed sweeteners. Aidells says even the simplest glaze of brown sugar and mustard would taste better.
Fully cooked hams can be eaten cold. If you plan to bake it, heat the oven to 325 degrees and cook to an internal temperature of 140. Leftovers, or hams not in their original packaging, should be heated to 160 degrees.
A fully cooked whole ham will take 15 to 18 minutes per pound to come to temperature. A fully cooked half ham will need to cook for about 18 to 24 minutes per pound.
Partially cooked hams must be heated at 325 degrees to an internal temperature of 160. A 15- to 20-pound ham needs 18 to 20 minutes per pound. A 5- to 7-pound ham needs 20 to 25 minutes per pound.
Any ham looks and tastes better with a flavorful glaze. Most classic ham glazes combine a sweet ingredient, such as brown sugar, maple syrup or molasses, with a contrasting flavor, such as mustard or vinegar.
The sugars in the glaze caramelize while baking, giving the ham a beautiful glossy sheen.
Before coating ham with a glaze make sure to score it with a diamond pattern by cutting 1/4- to 1/2-inch slashes into the surface. This looks great and provides more surface area on the ham for the glaze to stick to.
If a ham has been cured and smoked in a net bag it may already have a pattern etched into the surface. But even these hams will benefit from being scored.
A ham can be coated with a glaze using a pastry brush or a large spoon at any point during baking, but every 15 minutes is a good rule of thumb.
A sweet glaze can certainly work well on a fresh ham, but because of the long cooking time, you will want to add the glaze toward the end so it doesn't burn.
When carving a ham use a very sharp knife with a thin blade. Cut only the amount you will serve, as leftover sliced ham dries out faster than larger pieces.
To carve a bone-in ham, cut a few long slices parallel to the bone, then turn the ham so it rests on the cut surface. Make perpendicular slices toward the bone and then cut along the bone to release the slices.
Roast ham with triple orange sauce
Preparation time: 50 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 12 servings
The sauce for this ham is adapted from a recipe in "Cooking," by James Peterson.
1 cup water
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur such as Grand Marnier, or cognac
2 tablespoons butter, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 fully cooked ham, about 6 pounds
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grate the zest from 2 of the oranges into a medium saucepan; add the water. Heat to a boil over medium-high heat; cook 2 minutes. Meanwhile, squeeze the juice from one of the oranges; set aside. Section the remaining 2 oranges; set aside.
2. Add vinegar and sugar to the saucepan; heat over high heat until almost dry. Add the reserved orange juice; cook until reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Add the broth; lower heat to a simmer. Cook until mixture is slightly syrupy, about 5 minutes. Stir in reserved orange segments and orange liqueur; cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Whisk in the butter; season with salt and pepper. Transfer about 2 tablespoons of the sauce to a small bowl; set aside.
3. Trim most of the fat from the ham; score the fat on top in a diamond pattern. Brush with a little of the sauce from the bowl. Roast until meat thermometer reads 135-140 degrees, about 1 hour, 30 minutes, basting occasionally with a little of the sauce. Discard any remaining sauce in the bowl. Transfer ham to cutting board; let rest 10 minutes. Meanwhile, reheat reserved sauce in the saucepan, 2 minutes. Drizzle over ham slices.
Nutrition information per serving: 193 calories, 24% of calories from fat, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 97 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 1,438 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Roasted fresh ham
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: 12 servings
Fresh hams are simply cooked as you would pork roasts. They haven't been cured or cooked, so you need to cook them to an internal temperature of about 160 degrees. Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, authors of "The Ultimate Cookbook," serve this moist roast with simmered sauerkraut. To make a beautiful rich gravy, combine 2 tablespoons of fat from the drippings with 2 tablespoons of flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the rest of the de-fatted drippings and heat to a gentle boil until the gravy thickens. If you want extra gravy, add some chicken broth.
2 tablespoons dried sage
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 fresh Boston butt ham, 6-7 pounds
3 cloves garlic, slivered
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) chicken broth
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, melted
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 small yellow onions, quartered
1. Place an oven rack in the lower third of the oven; heat the oven to 450 degrees. Combine the sage, salt and pepper in a small bowl; rub the sage mixture onto the outside of the ham. Puncture the roast all over with the tip of a knife to produce dozens of little holes about 3/4-inch deep. Insert the slivered garlic into the holes. Score the ham with a knife, making 1/4-inch deep slashes about 2 inches apart. Place the ham in a large roasting pan, fat-side up. Roast 20 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees.
2. Meanwhile, make a basting liquid by combining the chicken broth, melted butter, dry mustard and lemon juice in a medium bowl.
3. Roast ham 40 minutes; add the onions. Cook, basting the ham occasionally with some of the chicken broth mixture, every 30 minutes, until the ham reaches an internal temperature of 155 degrees, about 1 hour.
4. Transfer ham to a cutting board. Cover the ham loosely with foil; let rest 20 minutes. Discard the onions; skim fat from the pan drippings. Slice the ham.
Nutrition information per serving: 219 calories, 38% of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 107 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 1,546 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours
Yield: 12 servings
Simmering the sauerkraut for several hours makes it melt-in-your-mouth tender. Juniper berries give the dish a distinctive flavor, but if you can't find them just omit them from the recipe.
3 pounds sauerkraut, drained
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Combine the sauerkraut, chicken broth, onion, juniper berries and pepper in a medium saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium-high heat; lower heat to a simmer. Cover; cook until tender, about 2-3 hours. Serve with roasted fresh ham.